Judaism – A Chapter of Vienna City History

Schlom was the name of the first Jew in Vienna – at least the first to be mentioned in a document. The Babenberg Duke Leopold V brought Schlom to Vienna as a mint master, where it is documented from 1194 onwards. His end was cruel – but not atypical: one of Schlom’s servants had been a crusader. He stole from Schlom, who then took him to court. The servant was locked up. But his wife incited other former crusaders to avenge their husband. Thereupon they murdered Schlom and fifteen other people in his household in 1196. That was also the end of Jewish mint masters, because the Viennese mint cooperative founded by Leopold V only accepted Christians as members.

This is just one of the many stories from the early days of Viennese Judaism. The new permanent exhibition of the Judenplatz branch of the Vienna Jewish Museum conveys them in its new permanent exhibition. Either you sink into it and even need a second visit, or you stay at an uncomprehending distance. Because this exhibition does not make it easy for its visitors. Above all, it is aimed at an audience that is interested in medieval city history from the outset.

A medieval key found during excavations in the former Jewish quarter of Vienna.  - © Nafez Rerhuf
A medieval key found during excavations in the former Jewish quarter of Vienna. – © Nafez Rerhuf

Lots of text

The biggest plus of the show is its biggest shortcoming – and vice versa: This exhibition offers a lot of information, but it is sparse with show values. It almost feels like a book that has been converted into blackboards for exhibition purposes. You can feel how hard the exhibition organizers have struggled with the material, or rather with its lack. A few everyday objects, a key, a tombstone, a model of the medieval Jewish quarter of Vienna – there is not much more to see. But: The skeleton of a dog, found in a well, suggests that, contrary to rumors, it was less the Jews who poisoned the Christian wells than the Christians the Jewish wells. The dog is an unclean animal for Jews, the intention of damage to health and at the same time humiliation is abundantly clear.

Thanks to this exhibition, one learns a lot that is not necessarily familiar to anyone interested in urban history: We know that Jews in the Middle Ages and beyond made up a large part of the capable medical profession; In Vienna, however, there is only one proven record before 1420: Juda Guntzenhauser.

Jews as owners of vineyards: that existed in medieval Vienna. Only Jews could press kosher wine, and every step of the production process had to be supervised by a rabbi.

Jews as moneylenders – just an anti-Jewish stereotype. Not at all, but the show reveals the background: Christians were prohibited from lending. Conversely, Jews were banned from numerous professions. They were also only allowed to practice craft trades for their own community. Otherwise there was a compulsory guild – and the guilds did not admit Jewish members.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Jewish community in Vienna there seemed to have been a good togetherness. Only gradually did the anti-Jewish stereotypes emerge, which continue to affect uninformed and historically uneducated people to this day.

In 1421 the synagogue on Judenplatz was destroyed – excavations have uncovered its foundations, they can be seen in the Museum Judenplatz. And for the first time in this Gesera in Vienna there was systematic persecution and murder of Jews. Duke Albrecht V had given the order for this. His motives are unknown. Only in the second half of the 16th century did Jews settle in Vienna again.

Jewish history – Viennese city history. An important exhibition – and indispensable for every conscious Viennese.

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